Interview with Rabbi Jacob Neusner

Author: Andrea Monda

Interview with Rabbi Jacob Neusner

Andrea Monda 

The Pope at the Synagogue? An important event

No one could be more suitable than Rabbi Jacob Neusner — one of the greatest experts and scholars on Judaism alive — to discuss the Sermon on the Mount with the Catholic theologian Archbishop Bruno Forte.

The exceptional evening meeting took place on 18 January in Rome, in the Auditorium's Petrassi Hall. It was no coincidence that this dialogue took place the day after the Pope's historic Visit to the Synagogue of Rome, nor was it by chance that the Marilena Ferrari-FMR Foundation chose this Jewish figure in organizing the Imago Christi event. Imago Christi is the title of the art book published by Nicola Sapori that contains the Sermon on the Mount; read aloud at the event by actor Luca Zingaretti.

Archbishop Forte began by recalling a quotation of Ghandi's, who said: "It was thanks to this text that I learned to love Jesus". The Sermon on the Mount is, as it were, the "identity card" of Christ, hence also that of Christians. No one is more fitting to reflect on this extraordinary "identity card" than Jacob Neusner, because this is what the American Rabbi has been doing for more than 20 years, from the time when his long-distance dialogue with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger began.

In 1993 Neusner published a book in the United States on the Sermon on the Mount: A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. In this book he imagines he is there on the mountain where Jesus spoke the Beatitudes, hearing him for the first time. Neusner's challenge is to listen to Christ, free from all the preconceived notions and prejudices that have inevitably accumulated in 2,000 years of Christian history.

Before beginning the dialogue, the elderly Rabbi from Hartford, Connecticut, told the audience about his book: "Just before it was published, I suggested to my editor that we ask Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to write a review for the jacket. He treated me as though I were out of my mind for he thought that the Cardinal would never have accepted. We bet on it and I won".

Ratzinger wrote, among other things, that my essay was "by far the most important book for Jewish-Christian dialogue to have come out in the past decade". And he added: "The absolute intellectual honesty, the precision of the analysis, the combination of respect for the other party and radical loyalty to his own position characterize this book and make it a challenge, especially to Christians who will have to think carefully about the difference between Moses and Jesus".

"Then in 2007, when Benedict XVI wrote the first volume of his work on Jesus of Nazareth, he had the courtesy to resume our dialogue, dedicating several pages to my book of 1993".

Archbishop Forte is also well acquainted with Neusner's book. During the public dialogue he praised it several times, stressing first its originality, due "to the fact that the author imagines himself a contemporary of the Galilean Teacher and enters into an intense discussion with him. From the rabbinical point of view, this is an act of profound respect and strong spiritual tension" — and then the loyal frankness with which it was written: "Jesus' Jewish identity is therefore indisputable, and we must be grateful to those — like Neusner — who avow it with honesty and respect".

With the same frankness the Archbishop went on to explain the reasons for Christianity, reflecting precisely on the most controversial points in his book over which the Rabbi expresses the greatest perplexity: respect for the Torah and in particular, for the Third and Fourth Commandments.

Citing Jeremiah, the Catholic theologian recalled that the Sermon on the Mount is not a law that opposes Mosaic Law. Rather, he said, it is a Gospel, the glad tidings of the love of God who does not abandon man but, by taking on flesh in Christ, gives him the power to scale those apparently impossible heights represented by the Beatitudes, the Magna Carta of Christianity.

The most engaging aspect of the dialogue between Archbishop Forte and Rabbi Neusner was its authenticity. It was courteous in style yet forthright and open in essence: a straight-forward confrontation which, together with the meetings between Jews and Catholics that have taken place in the past few days, contributed to increasing their reciprocal knowledge.

Another positive indication of this dialogue was the Private Audience that the Pope granted to Jacob Neusner and his wife, Suzanne, on Monday, 18 January. On that occasion the Rabbi gave Benedict XVI a copy of the German edition of his book of 1993 — which Ratzinger had read at the time in the original American edition — together with a copy of the Italian edition of the essay on the Talmud (published by the Daughters of St Paul who have likewise reprinted it with the title: Un rabbino parla con Gesù).

The Pope was very pleased with these gifts and spent almost 20 minutes talking to his friend from across the ocean. "Enough time", Neusner explained, "for a nice meeting between two professors. I have always esteemed the scholar Joseph Ratzinger for his honesty and lucidity, and I was very interested to meet him and become acquainted with him. Now that I have come here to Rome for the historic meeting in the Synagogue and for a discussion with Archbishpp Forte, I have received this great privilege of being able to meet the Pope".

Neusner was almost at a loss to express the joy of the visit: "We talked about our books and he told me he has finished writing the second volume of his work on Jesus".

Neusner, however, is a man of few words. He goes straight to the point, which is, moreover, the virtue that the two "professors" appreciate in each other. "What impressed me most was his penetrating gaze. He sees right through you. And then his gentlemanly manner, full of kindness and humility".

It is this human quality of the Pontiff which touched the Rabbi, the same quality he discerned in the Pope during his Visit to the Synagogue on Sunday: "An important event, widely attended and with high expectations and excitement on the part of all, which leads me to have great hopes for the future. The problem today — and the Pope has clearly understood it — is that we live in oblivion, we have forgotten the history and religious traditions from which we come.

"That is why it is important to study history. I am thinking of a controversial question such as that of the historical figure of Pius XII. To my mind it is still too early to judge; yet I often hear incisive contradictory opinions. I have a sort of feeling that someone is destructively undermining everything, someone who is not interested in Catholicism or Judaism, nor even in the dialogue between these two great traditions. This is sad, because in practical reality — I see it in my daily life in the United States — relations between Jews and Christians are excellent. If we ignore the past, we are condemned to relive it. The study of this viewpoint is indispensable. Together with a sense of responsibility: every generation has a responsibility for the future and has it today, here and now".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 January 2010, page 6

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